Philadelphia Union: What has gone wrong and is the season salvageable?

Apr 8, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin walks off the field after a loss to the Portland Timbers at Talen Energy Stadium. The Timbers won 3-1.Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 8, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin walks off the field after a loss to the Portland Timbers at Talen Energy Stadium. The Timbers won 3-1.Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

With Real Salt Lake welcoming new coach Mike Petke with a win, the Philadelphia Union now have the longest winless streak in MLS.

August 27th, 2016. That was the date of the last Philadelphia Union win and it is one that is emblazed in the heads of the fanbase. They are beginning to make their presence felt on social media with hashtags like “Curtins4Curtin” popping up and morale is sinking to a new low. While the streak to end last season and the streak to begin this season should be looked at through different lenses due to the personnel changes, that’s not going to happen.

The Philadelphia Union are at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and are on pace to break Chivas USA’s record for the worst points per game over the course of a full season. While I don’t think that will happen, it is not good company to be in for a team that snuck into the playoffs last year.

Thanks to improvements by the Chicago Fire and the New England Revolution, the Philadelphia Union could realistically end the season at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, an abject failure for a club with much bigger aspirations.

So what’s wrong in Chester?

First of all, the team is trying to do too much right now. Whether it’s Ilsinho going for the shot from outside the box when Chris Pontius or Derrick Jones overcommitting to a tackle that eventually leads to a goal. This is a team that needs to get back to basics.

Against Portland, Jim Curtin actually tried that by playing a hybrid formation. Combating the naysayers, he trotted out a formation that was a 4-4-2 in attack but a 4-5-1 in defense.

For a bit, this formation worked as a perfect Haris Medujanin corner delivery found Richie Marquez for the goal. The defense also limited Portland to only one early goal. Then, Darlington Nagbe’s shot went through the legs of Marquez opening the scoring for the Timbers and effectively knocking the wheels off for the Union.

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From that moment on The Philadelphia Union looked out of sorts ultimately allowing two more goals to lose by a scoreline of 3-1. They were overmanned by the portland attackers and there was no one in the 18 that could make a difference. While Curtin tried different tactics, the fact that Portland had the better 11 in the game isn’t on him.

The combination of Adi, Nagbe, Valeri, and Blanco is unlike any that the Philadelphia Union can put together and that isn’t Jim Curtin’s fault. His job is to coach the players and it’s the job of the front office to give him the guys that he needs to succeed. Jim Curtin has taken a lot of heat for his lineup inflexibility and use of substitutes.

Against Portland, he showed that he can employ different tactics and while the subs were still an issue with Jay Simpson, Roland Alberg, and Fabin Herbers looking lost when they came on the pitch, it’s not completely their fault. While the Philadelphia Union have spoken in length about building their academy and bringing in the right guys, they’ve left their head coach out to dry.

Most of the offseason additions haven’t had a positive impact on the team this year and the hole of Tranquillo Barnetta’s departure hasn’t been filled. While these are problems, they are Earnie Stewart problems and not Jim Curtin problems.

Yo Earnie, what’s up?

As of now, Haris Medujanin and Oguchi Onyewu are the only transfers who have had a positive impact on this team. Roland Alberg has taken a worrying step back and can’t even get into a game. Fafà Picault mysteriously disappeared from the matchday 18 and Bethlehem this weekend. Ilsinho is as wasteful as they come. Jay Simpson doesn’t fit the Philadelphia Union playstyle because he doesn’t get onto the end of crosses. Giliano Wijnaldum can’t even perform well in Bethlehem let alone Philadelphia. Alejandro Bedoya is a man with the world on his shoulders but is playing without a position. These are all talent recruitment issues that fall in Earnie Stewart’s wheelhouse.

The Philadelphia Union rank in the middle of MLS when it comes to their team salary but they aren’t getting enough bang for their buck. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Earnie Stewart has even been wasteful with transfer funds since he joined the team. He’s spent money, but it’s tough to say that he has spent it on the right players.

If both Alejandro Bedoya and the Philadelphia Union know that he isn’t a central attacking midfielder and the team wasn’t sold on Roland Alberg, why wasn’t an attacking midfielder looked at during the winter? These are the questions that Earnie Stewart should be facing. While Medujanin leads MLS in chances created, without someone else to keep possession in the final third and help get everyone involved all of these chances will go for nothing.

Meanwhile, Curtin is being thrown under the bus for something that isn’t his fault.  When he was asked in the post-game presser after the Portland game about his job security, Curtin was pretty frank saying,

"That’s natural. Again, when you lose games, that’s part of it. I don’t hide from that. I’m not a guy who doesn’t understand that there’s pressure in pro sports. Our players recognize that, I recognize that, I feel that. I’m not scared of it, because I still believe in the team and I believe in the group. You can put it on me, that’s fine. I take the blame. People are going to have their opinions and they’re entitled to them. Again, it’s our job to stick together as a team, continue to work hard, and bounce back from this. The only way you get out of it is to win a game. That’s the only way you silence the noise. There’s always noise. When you’re playing very well, there’s noise. People want to give accolades and anoint people the next big thing. There’s also noise when things are going bad. The only people that can turn it around are the people that are actually in the locker room and know what’s really going on. We’ll stick together. We have a great group – great staff, great group of players, and we’re going to fight."

He’s saying all the right things and isn’t putting the front office under the bus even though he coached a pretty good game against Portland.

What can the Philadelphia Union do moving forward?

How should the Philadelphia Union fix these issues? To start, Ilsinho shouldn’t see as much of the pitch that he does. With the Philadelphia Union struggling to pick up results it’s not a time for the team to play a winger who’s prone to playing hero ball on his own. Fabian Herbers is a more effective player out wide as shown by him picking up seven assists last year.

Another thing that the Philadelphia Union need to do is either play Bedoya on the wing or deeper in the midfield. Your best player should be playing in his best position not being shoehorned into a position that he isn’t comfortable in. On another note, Earnie Stewart needs to be on the lookout for a real number 10 to push this team to the playoffs.

As Nicolas Lodeiro showed last year, a team is only one big purchase away from making the playoffs or MLS Cup. While the Philadelphia Union aren’t as stacked as the Seattle Sounders, it isn’t out of the question that they could sneak into the playoffs with the right addition. But as shown by some of the guys mentioned earlier in this article, you can’t fully trust that the right guy will be brought in by the front office.

Next: Union Punished for Mistakes Against Portland

The Philadelphia Union have problems but the problem doesn’t end with Jim Curtin. The problem also isn’t the organization spending enough money. The problem is wastefulness with transfers and a rose-eyed view of the future. While spending on the academy is good and you don’t want to block those guys it also must be noticed that every prospect won’t be Derrick Jones. The problems run deep in Chester and Earnie Stewart along with others in the front office need to take a deep hard look at the organization to have a hope at fixing them.